Caring Leaders Robustly Communicate About the Things That Matter

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This week’s article is an excerpt from the book Leading with Care in a Tough World by Bob DeKoch and Phillip Clampitt.  It is a companion piece to their interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Leading with Care (in a tough world) which aired on November 1, 2022. 

Short clip from the interview:

Link to the entire interview:

Leaders can communicate about almost anything, but they cannot communicate about everything. Caring leaders recognize that they need to make wise communication choices and not fall into the “communicate, communicate, communicate” trap. They don’t try to communicate about everything. Instead, they robustly communicate about the things that matter. This strategic practice obliges caring leaders to answer three difficult and related questions: 

  • What are the “things that matter”? 
  • How do I “robustly communicate”? 
  • How do I know when I’ve successfully communicated?  

 

The Things that Matter 

Since almost anything might matter, it’s important to know how to winnow down the limitless possibilities. Caring leaders grapple with the “things that matter” question by thinking about two big buckets of potential issues: a) things that matter to the team or organization, and b) things that to matter to the individuals on the team or in the organization.   

Bucket one issues would involve those necessary for the growth, improvement, and survival of the team or organization. If there was some universal definitive list of these issues that applied across all organizations, then we would happily share it. Unfortunately, no such credible list actually exists. The reason? Organizations and teams face a myriad of different issues. What a tech company needs to thrive in a fast-paced changing world differs from what a university finds necessary to survive.  

Bucket two issues often represent a more difficult challenge. To understand what truly matters to employees, leaders much overcome several obstacles. 

First, while some people can candidly and directly identify “what matters” to them, others find it difficult. It’s not that they are inarticulate, it’s that they may be too close to the situation or use overly abstract language in describing what matters to them. For example, when employees say, “we need more communication,” they often put leaders in a bind because it’s difficult to discern their underlying sentiments. We’ve discovered this may actually mean, “show me more respect,” “listen to my input,” or “provide more definitive direction.” Caring leaders adeptly discern these underlying sentiments through proper questioning and listening.  

Second, employees may self-censor because of a working climate riddled with political correctness that stifles discordant views. These employees often fear social pressures to conform with prevailing political sentiments or vocal opinion leaders’ views on any number of issues.  

 

Robustly Communicate 

Caring leaders recognize that the “things that matter” should be vigorously communicated. So, how exactly do you do that? This does not mean getting a bigger megaphone to shout louder than everybody else. Instead, there’s a better, more enduring, and profound way by using three basic tools: Multi-dimension messaging, multi-channel delivery, and multi-direction orientation.  

 

Multi-dimension Messaging 

This messaging means that leaders fully communicate about the “things that matter” from different angles to enrich understanding and support. Too often leaders highlight the most significant features of the change while only broadcasting on the WIFO (What’s in It For the Organization) wavelength. This leaves out several other questions and is likely to result in less employee support. For instance, if leaders in this situation fail to broadcast on the WIFM (What’s in It for Me) frequency, employees will speculate on what it means for them, and rumors will swirl.  

 

Multi-channel Delivery 

Multi-channel delivery occurs when leaders use a combination of communication tools and vehicles. For example, using an email and a single team meeting to communicate can reinforce core messaging for less controversial “things that matter.” That’s the bare minimum, though. Other, more complex, and controversial TTMs (e.g., Things That Matter) will require a colorful palette of tools including social media posts, websites, presentations, town hall-style meetings, emails, and home mailings.  

 

Multi-direction Orientation 

This orientation refers to the leader’s desire to engage in two-way dialogue and conversations about the things that matter. One-way communication from leader to follower about things that matter rarely resonates for very long. Caring leaders might kickstart the communication cycle with an opening speech, a presentation of some type, or a written announcement (one way). To be clear, there is always a place for one-way communication via a speech or a written announcement. But caring leaders never stop there because they want others to be part of the on-going dialogue.  

Why? Because two-way dialogue can quickly clarify misunderstandings or quell unsettled feelings. Two-way communication provides leaders and employees an opportunity to address this often-hidden issue. In addition, two-way discussions tend to enhance support, if for no other reason that people feel that someone respects their opinions.  

 

Verify 

Checking all the robust communication boxes is not necessarily the recipe for success. After all, talented chefs may carefully measure out all the ingredients and faithfully follow the recipe, but they still do a taste test before serving. In the same way, caring leaders verify that the ingredients in their robust communications produce the desired outcome. They do so because they know that often “the message sent does not equal message received” – even robustly communicated ones.  

A disconnect might occur for any number of reasons, such as:   

Trust Deficit – When trust wanes, the likelihood of communication success quickly fades. The credibility assigned to the source of any message influences the degree of receptivity.  

Intervening Events and Opinion Leaders – Gifted communicators are often surprised how their message becomes garbled over time. An intervening event or new opinion leader might emerge that shifts understanding or changes opinions.  

Preconceptions – Sometimes a leader’s messages rub up against someone’s firmly held beliefs. If someone has a strongly held religious belief against certain types of medical care, then it doesn’t really matter how skillfully leaders communicate. Those pre-existing, entrenched views tend to be quite resistant to change. Caring leaders want to discover if they are inadvertently bumping into some deeply entrenched dogmas.  

 

Conclusion 

Musically-inclined leaders would be well served by including Kelly Clarkson’s “Hear me,” Buddy Holly’s “Listen to Me,” or Trisha Yearwood’s “That Ain’t the Way I Heard It” in their playlists. Tracks like these remind listeners across musical genres about the delicate daily challenges of effective communication. Caring leaders use the three-step framework to position themselves to not just “communicate, communicate, communicate” about everything, but to genuinely, thoughtfully, and profoundly communicate about the things that really matter.  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Bob DeKoch has devoted his entire career to leadership roles, refining his own skills, and mentoring hundreds of aspiring leaders. His passion for people and for extraordinary outcomes is what drives him. Rising to senior executive roles in numerous organizations, Bob has developed and put into practice the many teachings in his books. He has over four decades of experience across major market sectors: the construction services industry and real estate development business, the pulp and paper industry, the beverage industry, and the chemical industry. He has served on boards of US organizations—for-profit and nonprofit—including a major international corporation. This diverse experience has helped him develop unique insight into inspired leadership. Bob is currently the founder of the leadership consulting firm, Limitless, whose services are described at www.lmtlss.biz.

Phillip G. Clampitt (PhD, University of Kansas) is the Blair Endowed Chair of Communication at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He was previously designated the Hendrickson Named Professor of Business. Phil has won numerous awards for his teaching and scholarship. His students started calling him “Dr. So What” because he asked, “So what?” so often, as a prod to encourage them to think about the implications of their ideas (see www.DrSoWhat.com). The Wall Street Journal and MIT Sloan Management Review highlighted his work on decision downloading, which details how companies can effectively communicate decisions to those not involved in the decision-making process. Phil has consulted on leadership, communication, and strategic planning with organizations such as Nokia, PepsiCo, The US Army War College, Schneider National, and Dental City.

DeKoch and Clampitt have worked in a partnership for over thirty years. They have coauthored Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century (see www.progressmakers.net) and Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership (see www.imetacomm.com/eu). They have a passionate interest in helping others become successful leaders. Their research, writing, and mentoring have helped thousands of people become better leaders.

 

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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future via iTunesTuneInStitcherSpotify,  Amazon Music,  AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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